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Tasting Corner: Greece’s Great White Hope

Posted on  | October 27, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Santorini’s postcard-perfect landscape makes it a popular tourist destination, which has helped expose Americans to the island’s wines.

It takes time for a wine to move from fad to essential. In less than 20 years, Santorini’s white wines made from the Assyrtiko grape seem to have made that jump, and may be the one Greek wine that mainstream stores can’t be without.

Santorini Assyrtiko is still an artisanal buy, with most wines starting in the $15 retail range, though a large producer outside the island, Greek Wine Cellars, has slightly undercut the market. But even though Greece is still not among the top 10 countries in exporting wine to the US, Santorini Assyrtiko appears to be a trend with staying power.

“We’ve had Sigalas Assyrtiko since we opened the store in 2009,” says David Pustinger, owner of A Bottle or Two wine shop in Cincinnati. “It has been a big seller for us.”

Look at the history of place/grape combinations. New Zealand wasn’t on the radar until people discovered Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Argentina was unknown until the advent of Mendoza Malbec. Santorini Assyrtiko could be just the right combination to put Greece back on the U.S. wine drinker’s world map.

“Somebody told me a story of going to a well-known Greek restaurant in New York and there were no Santorini wines on the menu,” says wine industry analyst Barbara Insel of Stonebridge Research. “They asked why and the restaurant said, ‘If we had Santorini wine on the menu we wouldn’t sell anything else.’”

Consistent quality is a strength. Santorini has 1,200 growers but only 10 wineries. There isn’t much potential for dilution of the name.

The downside of that is that, as wine drinkers order more Assyrtiko, prices have nowhere to go but up. It’s not surprising that Santorini’s most famous native grape is now being planted all over Greece. But here is a case where terroir makes a difference, and not just in the taste of the grape, but in the mind of the consumer.

Why Santorini Matters

For average Americans, Santorini is one of the best-known Greek islands. Its picture-perfect caldera has appeared in many honeymoon albums, and it’s a popular stop for cruise ships in the area.

For wine lovers, Santorini has one of the best and easiest stories to tell. The vines are grown in a unique koulara method, in spiraling, purposefully tangled “baskets” on the ground, to protect the grapes from sun and wind. The entire island was emptied by a volcano 3,600 years ago, and eruptions still periodically require villages to be evacuated. Phylloxera can’t live here in the sandy volcanic soil, in which practically nothing but these grapevines can grow. In fact, the island is so dry that most vegetation survives on water vapor captured from the air by volcanic pumice rocks.

When a vine gets less productive, the grower cuts off the top and the roots regrow a new one, meaning the basket vines (ampelies) may be centuries old.

The wines have a taste profile that enophiles love, particular today’s younger wine-savvy drinkers: high-acid, lots of minerality. Put them in a spot in the store where you have space to show a photo with a shelf-talker, and you’ve got a good chance at creating a local phenomenon.

Several of the individual brands have great stories to tell as well.

Names to Know

Boutari, one of the best-known Greek wine companies, created modern Santorini wine as we know it. When Boutari built a winery on the island in 1989, enologist Yannis Voyatzis insisted that growers pick a month earlier than they had been. There was a huge backlash, including sabotage at the winery. Growers had been picking during a September harvest festival for generations, and they didn’t want to change.

Voyatzis paid more, and that helped. But what really helped is that people tasted the wines he was making. Previously, Santorini whites had been oxidized, flabby and about 17% alcohol. Voyatzis unlocked the flavors we know today, and by the mid-’90s the other wineries on the island were all doing the same.

Voyatzis is still Boutari’s chief enologist and the company’s Santorini wines are still crisp and flavorful. Winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos worked for Boutari for four years before being fired. “Maybe I wasn’t serious enough for them,” he says. A Bordeaux-trained winemaker, Paraskevopoulos decided to start his own winery, Gaia, which is right on the beach. It’s now one of the best wineries in Greece, with a free spirit of experimentation that finds its way into the wines. Paraskevopoulos is aging some wines underwater, off the Santorini coast, just to see what happens. He now teaches winemaking and gets his assistants by hiring his best students; they’re free to sunbathe on the beach at lunchtime.

Paris Sigalas is one of the best-regarded winemakers on Santorini, and his wines are some of the saltiest. Argyros Estate is another brand with some cachet in the Manhattan wine world. But it’s really hard to go wrong with any Santorini Assyrtiko. Even the relatively inexpensive Greek Wine Cellars wine is made by a small family producer, Artemis Karamolegos.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio: “The Sigalas Assyrtiko is on our Facebook page,” says A Bottle or Two’s Pustinger. “A customer took a picture of it on their patio. It’s a great seafood wine. Anyone who likes a nice crisp white wine would like this.”

SIDEBAR: SANTORINI TERROIR

Archeological evidence indicates that cultivation of vines on Santorini dates back almost 5,000 years. Its uniqueness as a wine region, however, stems from a volcanic eruption around 1600 BC, which left behind a mixture of ash, pumice stone, pieces of solidified lava and sand. The soil of Santorini, known as aspa, has little to no organic matter, but is rich in essential minerals, except potassium, creating wines with a naturally low pH level and high acidity. Additionally, the lack of clay in the soil gives the vines a natural immunity from phylloxera.

What scarce rain Santorini gets falls mostly in the winter and seeps deep through the porous soil and rock, where it remains until the summer’s heat draws it toward the surface to nourish the vines. The only other source of water available comes in the form of sea fog that envelops the island at night. This salty spray boosts minerality and adding a pleasing, slightly briny character to the wine.

Cool, refreshing winds from the north called meltemia blanket the island during the summer, decreasing the temperature dramatically at night. This helps maintain the already bright acidity that Assyrtiko and the other native varieties inherently possess. These revitalizing winds also keep the vines from becoming infected with botrytis and mildew, which greatly reduces the need to treat the vines.


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